The Ontario Hockey League is ready, once again, to crown its king.
It's playoff time.
But are you willing to wager against reigning royalty?
Have you seen enough this year to dismiss the London Knights, the two-time defending league champs?
Are you tired of watching Bo Horvat and Max Domi, a perfect eight-for-eight in career playoff series, on their way to a third straight Memorial Cup, this time on home ice?
Will you bet the farm against the Hunters?
The Knights believe everyone else is waiting for them to fall on their face this spring.
“That, right there, is enough motivation,” said Domi, London's leading scorer for a second straight year. “Every team obviously wants to win a championship and when they want you to lose, it fuels you and gets you going.
“(Every other team) is going to do everything they can to beat us and it's nothing new. We're used to it. We've got make sure we come to the rink prepared every day.”
The Knights have already received a spoonful of what it feels like to tumble off the mountain top.
They are the fourth seed in the Western Conference largely because this season was like no other in OHL history. Three teams in the Midwest Division – Guelph, Erie and London – all surpassed the 100-point mark.
The Knights finished the schedule with 20 wins in their final 23 games and couldn't shoot past the high-scoring Storm or the revamped Otters in the standings.
It sets up a much more treacherous playoff path. It means a team or two worthy of a Cup berth won't even make the third round this year.
Guelph was the most consistent team all season. The Otters, with top-scoring Connor Brown, Dane Fox and wunderkind Connor McDavid, are a pleasure to watch. The Oshawa Generals and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds were two of the most surprising clubs.
But the Knights have those intangibles that can never be taken for granted.
They are winners and they know what it means to play until late May.
“There's nothing like a (secret formula) to win an OHL championship,” Domi said. “It's watching how the older guys handle stuff. It's about leaving it all on the ice. This is the time in the season we play for and we know we're going to do whatever it takes to win here.
“We're looking forward to that challenge again.”
London lost its No. 1 defenceman, Olli Maatta, to the Pittsburgh Penguins last fall. The 19-year-old Finn ended up winning an Olympic bronze medal in Sochi. The Knights brought in overagers Alex Basso, Brady Austin and Zach Bell to bolster the blue line and didn't pick a captain until 40-goal man Chris Tierney earned the honour in the third week of January.
Guelph, meanwhile, made the biggest splash on the trade market, adding Windsor sniper Kerby Rychel and veteran defenceman Nick Ebert.
Erie GM Sherry Bassin, with a once-in-a-lifetime kid in McDavid, bolstered his roster, too.
Now, it's up to coaching, chemistry and the will to win to take over.
“You see a whole group grow as a team throughout the year and it's pretty cool to watch,” Domi said. “Your team can change a lot in a season with new people coming in and the way guys handle those changes, it speaks volumes about what hockey's all about, and for me, what the London Knights are all about.
“We embrace it. It's part of why we're so successful.”
There's no predicting what's going to be the glue that forms an unbreakable bond.
It could be a hot goalie refusing to lose. It could be a fourth line with an unexpected contribution.
It might be an overtime goal, a road win, a stirring comeback, a perfect game plan, or plain-old belief.
There's a team in Saginaw playing for the memory of lost teammate Terry Trafford. There's excitement in Peterborough about being back in the playoffs.
There's North Bay, a division champ in its triumphant return, Kingston's young guns and a Barrie team that recalls the anguish of Game 7 in London.
And, of course, there's still the Knights.
“Last year, everyone was asking, 'Is this Knights team the same as (2011-12),” Domi said. “It wasn't. It was a different group completely. Same thing this year. We have different strengths and weaknesses.”
It's the same story, just a different tune.
Now, we find out who will be playing right until the end.
Guelph Storm (1) vs. Plymouth Whalers (8)
Head-to-head: The Storm (52 wins,108 points) beat the Whalers (28 wins, 63 points) 3 of 4 meetings this year.
The matchup: Guelph's 340 goals (5 per game) most since Barrie (343) in 1998-99 . . . League champion Storm won 1st division title since '99 . . . Plymouth has qualified for the playoffs 23 straight seasons . . . The Whalers played in a league-high 14 shootouts this year, winning 7 of them . . . The Storm have 7 players with more points than Plymouth's leading scorer Zach Lorentz, who finished with 54 . . . Guelph F Scott Kosmachuk (Winnipeg) was one of three OHLers with 100 points.
Big names: Ex-Windsor F Kerby Rychel (Columbus) had 18 goals, 51 points in 31 Guelph games . . . Storm G Justin Nichols stuck it to doubters with 2.85 GAA and .918 save %. . . . The Whalers need G Alex Nedeljkovic (2.88, .925) to be MVP of the series . . . Plymouth's Mike Vellucci is the league's reigning executive and coach of the year.
Prediction: Storm in 4.
Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (2) vs. Owen Sound Attack (7)
Head-to-head: The Hounds (44 wins, 95 points) went 2-0 vs Owen Sound (31 wins, 70 points) this year.
The matchup: Rematch of last year's first round, which the Attack won in 6 . . . Owen Sound was the league's most penalized team (1,142 PIMs), the Hounds finished with the second-fewest sin bin minutes (780) . . . The Soo had the best penalty kill in the league (84.8 %). The Attack were 17th (74.5 %) so special teams will loom large . . . The Greyhounds only lost five home games in regulation this year. The Attack's Bayshore complex has some of the most lively boards in junior hockey.
Big names: Soo D Darnell Nurse (Edmonton) needs to be a post-season star. So does veteran G Matt Murray (Pittsburgh), who had 6 shutouts this year . . . 'Hounds F Jared McCann only appeared in one playoff game vs. the Attack last season because of concussion). He'll be looking to make up for lost time . . . Owen Sound F Kyle Platzer (Edmonton) had 13 goals in 27 games since mid-season trade from London . . . Attack overage F Kurtis Gabriel (Minnesota) steams into playoffs on a 10-game point streak. He plays with considerable edge, too.
Prediction: Hounds in 6
Erie Otters (3) vs. Saginaw Spirit (6)
Head-to-head: The Otters (52 wins, 106 points) won 3 of 4 from Saginaw (33 wins, 71 points) this season.
The matchup: Erie is hungry after missing the playoffs the past two seasons. The Spirit are playing for the memory of teammate Terry Trafford, whose death last week sent shockwaves throughout the hockey world . . . The Otters were the OHL's most stingy team (170 goals against) in front of G Oscar Dansk (Columbus) and Saginaw native Devin Williams. Saginaw G Jake Paterson (Detroit) is a two-time Canadian world junior . . . Erie comes in to playoffs on an eight-game roll . . . The Otters have the league's top power play (30.7 %). The Spirit are 10th in penalty killing (79.9 %).
Big names: Erie boasts the league's top point-getter Connon Brown (Leafs, 128 points), best goal scorer Dane Fox (Vancouver, 64 goals) and most dynamic player Connor McDavid (99 points) . . . Former Belleville standout Brendan Gaunce (Vancouver) has 21 goals, 46 points in 43 games with Erie . . . Spirit attack led by three overagers Kristoff Kontos, Eric Locke, D Justin Sefton (67 combined goals) . . . Saginaw F Justin Kea (Buffalo) is a tough assignment for any defenceman.
Prediction: Otters in 5.
London Knights (4) vs. Windsor Spitfires (5)
Head-to-head: The Knights (49 wins, 103 points) won 5 of 6 from Windsor (37 wins, 77 points).
The matchup: Two-time defending OHL champion London hasn't lost a playoff series in two years and swept its previous two first round series. The Spitfires haven't won a playoff game since 2011 . . . The Memorial Cup host Knights led the OHL with 19 shorthanded goals (beware of Chris Tierney and Max Domi) but the Spits surrendered a league-low three shorties . . . London has eight 20-goal scorers, including the playoff-savvy Rupert twins Matt (33 goals) and Leafs pick Ryan (21) . . . Decimated at the back end, the Spitfires have used forwards on the point to replace lost seasons of captain Slater Koekkoek (shoulder) and Trevor Murphy (broken leg) . . . Windsor's leading men Josh Ho-Sang and Brady Vail (Montreal) each scored 32 goals this season.
Big names: The Knights have 4 NHL first rounders (Domi, Bo Horvat, Nikita Zadorov, Michael McCarron). It would've been 5 if D Olli Maatta (Pittsburgh/Finnish Olympic bronze medal) returned this season . . . Dale and Mark Hunter won't allow London to coast its way to the Memorial Cup tournament . . . London G Anthony Stolarz (Philadelphia) is 4-1 with a 2.21 GAA and .931 save % since horrific 55-stitch cut Jan. 17 . . . Windsor's Alex Fotinos/Dalen Kuchmey tandem will be busy . . . Keep your eye on this guy: London rookie F Mitch Marner.
Prediction: Knights in 4.
Oshawa Generals (1) vs. Mississauga Steelheads (8)
Head-to-head: The Gennies (42 wins, 90 points) were the class of the East this season. Missy (24 wins, 54 points) squeaked in playoffs on final weekend. Oshawa won 3 of 4 meetings.
The matchup: Oshawa has 7 players with 40-plus points. The Steelheads finished with one (F Bryson Cianfrone, 44) and traded their lone 20-goal man (Dylan Smoskowitz) to the Generals . . . Mississauga won a league-worst six road games. Their odds of winning at GM Centre are slim . . . This was supposed to be a rebuilding season in Oshawa. Coach DJ Smith and his players convinced GM Jeff Twohey otherwise . . . The Generals' power play scored 40 more times than the Steelheads.
Big names: Canadian world junior captain Scott Laughton (Philadelphia, 40 goals) and Michael Dal Colle (39 goals) drive Oshawa's offence . . . Missy's exceptional D Sean Day (6-10-16, minus-35) will appear in playoffs as a rookie, something 15-year-olds John Tavares and Connor McDavid never did . . . Steelheads G Spencer Martin shut out Oshawa in first meeting this season. He led the OHL in minutes played . . . Gens G Daniel Altshuller has a 78-47-3-5 career regular-season record and 6-6-1 in the playoffs.
Prediction: Generals in 4.
North Bay Battalion (2) vs. Niagara IceDogs (7)
Head-to-head: The Troops (38 wins, 82 points) tied the 2009-10 Ottawa 67's as the division winner with the fewest points over the past seven years. They split six games with the IceDogs (24 wins, 57 points).
The matchup: Niagara actually outscored North Bay this season by three goals . . . The Battalion ripped the Central division title away from Sudbury with six straight wins down the stretch . . . North Bay made history with a division crown in its first season back in the league since 1994 . . . This has been a virtuoso performance by Niagara GM/coach Marty Williamson in the last season at ancient Jack Gatecliff Arena. The 'Dogs took a bite out of most top teams this season.
Big names: Top Troop Barclay Goodrow (127 career goals) has scored consistently in Stan Butler's defensive-minded system . . . Ex-Ranger Ben Thomson buried 24 goals in 43 games after trade from Kitchener . . . Another old Ranger, Eric Ming, scored 32 goals in 49 Niagara games . . . The IceDogs need top young guns Carter Verhaeghe (Leafs, 82 points) and Brendan Perlini (34 goals) to fill the net again . . . Niagara G Brett Moran, 17, has to outplay North Bay's Jake Smith (2.52 GAA, .904 save %) in net.
Prediction: Battalion in 6.
Kingston Frontenacs (3) vs. Peterborough Petes (6)
Head-to-head: The Fronts (39 wins, 84 points) won 5 of 6, but the Petes (32 wins, 70 points) took the most recent meeting in overtime two weeks ago.
The matchup: Kingston was one of four OHL teams to surpass 300 goals. The Petes were on an early pace to give up 300 before tightening up under Jody Hull . . . Proud Peterborough, back in the post-season for the first time in four years, hs a grand total of one playoff game win since their league title in 2006 . . . The Frontenacs haven't survived the first round since 1998. Something's gotta give . . . It's a battle of overagers in net between Petes' Andrew D'Agostini and Kingston's Matt Mahalak (Carolina). Neither has a career playoff victory.
Big names: Top NHL prospect Sam Bennett has 36 goals and 118 penalty minutes. Petes counterpart Nick Ritchie scored 39 times and has 136 PIMs . . . The Petes have been a different team since the arrival of Hunter Garlent from Guelph. The forward has 12 goals, 30 points in 25 games . . . Bennett, Spencer Watson and Darcy Greenaway gave Kingston 3 30-goal men. Ryan Kujawinski (New Jersey) has 23 goals in 45 games . . . Petes F Eric Cornel ramped up from 4 goals as a rookie to 25 this season.
Prediction: Peterborough in 7.
Barrie Colts (4) vs. Sudbury Wolves (5)
Head-to-head: Both teams finished with 77 points. The Colts had 4 more wins (37). The Wolves won 5 of 8 meetings.
The matchup: Barrie still has a healthy nucleus from the team that lost Game 7 of the OHL final in London last spring. They'll be on a mission to get back . . . Sudbury might have won the Central if they were better than 3-8 in the shootout . . . Barrie is the only playoff team that didn't win a single game in overtime this year . . . Sudbury G Franky Palazzese (2.97, .916) is the face of the series. If he shines, the Colts are in trouble. Barrie's two goalies – Mackenzie Blackwood and Daniel Gibl – are in their first playoffs.
Big names: Speedy Colts F Andreas Athanasiou (Detroit) had a sterling season with 49 goals and 95 points. He knows what it takes to win . . . So does Sudbury captain Kevin Raine. He was Athanasiou's teammate on the 2012 league champion London Knights . . . Barrie's likely NHL first overall pick Aaron Ekblad led OHL defencemen with 23 goals. Sudbury's Trevor Carrick (Carolina), who arrived from Mississauga, was second with 22. No one else had more than 16 . . . Barrie F Brendan Lemieux, like father Claude, is annoying to play against . . . Sudbury F Radek Faksa (Dallas) has 5 goals in 29 Sudbury games. He had 16 in 30 games with low-scoring Kitchener this year.
Prediction: Sudbury in 7.
|Connor Brown, Erie||45||83||128|
|Dane Fox, Erie||64||43||107|
|Scott Kosmachuk, Gue||48||52||100|
|Connor McDavid, Erie||28||71||99|
|Andreas Athanasiou, Bar||49||46||95|
|Michael Dal Colle, Osh||39||56||95|
|Nikolay Goldobin, Sar||38||56||94|
|Max Domi, Ldn||34||59||93|
|Sam Bennett, Kgn||36||55||91|
|Sergey Tolchinsky, SSM||31||60||91|
|Kerby Rychel, Gue||34||56||90|
|Nicholas Baptiste, Sby||45||44||89|
|Chris Tierney, Ldn||40||49||89|
|Robby Fabbri, Gue||45||42||87|
|Andre Burakovsky, Erie||41||46||87|
|Scott Laughton, Osh||40||47||87|
|Brock McGinn, Gue||43||42||85|
|Josh Ho-Sang, Wsr||32||53||85|
|Brady Vail, Wsr||32||51||83|
|Zach Mitchell, Gue||31||52||83|